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June 15, 2014 8:51 PM   Subscribe

Which writers, artists, thinkers, etc explore the themes of liminality in their work?

The first time I ever heard of anything like the term was when almost every class in my Bachelor's university kept going on about the Japanese concept of Ma (negative space). Not too long ago I stumbled upon it again and really connected with the idea of being in-between, neither here nor there, the state of transition being what defines you.

From what I can tell, it seems to be an anthropological or philosophical term, but have there been any artistic or creative works that deal with liminality? Things like thresholds, transitions, trans-anything, both/and, shifting identities, (not quite) belonging, shapeshifting? Where could I keep looking?
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Your link covers Victor Turner, who was inspired by Arnold Van Gennep. I read them both 25 years ago, and I'm sure I've seen several artists directly reference the concept since then but none I could name--TBH because what I recall is being slightly unconvinced that the allusion made sense from an anthropological point of view.

But based on your wider search, a couple of different thinkers who come to mind that could be similarly productive for you are Gloria Anzaldúa (pretty much all of Borderlands / La Frontera) and Gaston Bachelard (particularly the chapter "The Dialectics of Inside and Outside" in The Poetics of Space).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:21 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perhaps a bit low-brow, but long ago in a university far, far away, I wrote a term paper comparing Worf and Odo as liminal characters. I'd also accept Spock.

I can't give you any specific titles, but I imagine almost any work having to do with immigration (particularly the children of immigrants?) is going to present this as a theme, explicitly or implicitly.
posted by Alterscape at 9:36 PM on June 15, 2014

Response by poster: duurrrrr I forgot to mention immigration, especially since that's one of the core reasons I connected to this topic in the first place!

low/middle/high/no/unibrow is all good.
posted by divabat at 9:38 PM on June 15, 2014

When I was studying liminality in Anthropology classes in college, it was often in the context of rituals and rites of passage. In contemporary literature, the coming of age novel is a genre that generally deals with some type of transition in identity. A great one to check out is Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides. It's not about liminality per se, but it's definitely about a person who is in between identities in a multitude of ways - gender is the obvious one, but being a part of an immigrant family is a huge theme as well.

In film, a great documentary to check out is How to Die in Oregon, which is about people on the threshold of death. It's extremely moving and again, not about the concept of liminality explicitly, but it's very much about people in an in-between space.
posted by ohisee at 9:40 PM on June 15, 2014

Less academic than previous suggestions, but one of my favorite movies is Lost in Translation, which I think is all about liminality. I think that Sofia Coppola often explores liminality, although I don't like her other work as much as LiT.
posted by Joh at 10:05 PM on June 15, 2014

Might not be quite on target but check out the Interstitial Arts Foundation. The organization is dedicated to promoting artwork that defies traditional genres and categories, highlighting the interstices.
posted by xenization at 10:30 PM on June 15, 2014

[Oh noooooo, my iPad ate the version of my comment with all my links :-( Sorry!]

Indigenous authors often explore issues of liminality. I'm most familiar with Aboriginal/First Nations authors in Canada, but I'd imagine their work has parallels in other international literatures as well.

Beatrice Culleton Moisonnier, In Search of April Raintree
Joseph Boyden, Through Black Spruce
Thomas King, "Borders"
Film, The Necessities of Life, about an Inuit man who is forced to relocate from the Arctic to Quebec for tuberculosis treatment

Native American authors/works:

Sherman Alexie, "Breaking and Entering," "Flight Patterns"
Louise Erdrich, "The Red Convertible"

Other novels, short stories, films dealing with immigration or second generation kids:

Gish Jen, Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, Who's Irish?
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, "A Pair of Tickets"
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis I and II (graphic novels, also a film)
Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

Films: Incendies and Littoral (both written by Lebanese-Canadian Québécois playwright Wajdi Mouawad)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:02 AM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Liminal States by Zack Parsons.
posted by spasm at 1:03 AM on June 16, 2014

A great deal of contemporary Performance practice touches on this, especially by artists who aren't part of dominant culture. Here are two that might fit what you are looking for.

La Pocha Nostra:
Our common denominator is our desire to challenge, cross, and erase dangerous borders between art and politics, practice and theory, artist and spectator, mentor and apprentice, body and cultural nightmares. We strive to eradicate myths of purity and dissolve borders surrounding culture, ethnicity, gender, language, power, and métier. Sadly, at this point in time, these are still considered radical acts.

Teresa Margolles:
Anonymous traces of past lives, burial and memory are drawn together in her practice. Since graduating with a diploma in forensic medicine in the late 1990’s, Margolles has examined the economy of death, whereby the morgue and dissecting room bear witness to social unrest.
posted by glasseyes at 1:56 AM on June 16, 2014

HP Lovecraft has a number of short stories that explore this concept. Its central, though implicit, in his construction of creepiness.

As a suggestion, "the shadow over innsmouth" is probably the most obvious. And as a bonus features immigration in two senses.
posted by ServSci at 2:29 AM on June 16, 2014

If I'm understanding the concept properly, David Cronenberg. For example, VIDEODROME and (ahem) THE FLY.
posted by brundlefly at 3:11 AM on June 16, 2014

Literature thrives on liminal spaces, they're everywhere.

But for more specific examples, Nell Larson's 'Passing' is an interesting little book about a light-skinned black woman living the titular act.
posted by sibboleth at 4:37 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to mention The Namesake too.

And since you mentioned Japanese culture, Haruki Murakami's novels are all about this. Kafka on the Shore is a great one to start with (the character of Oshima is really interesting); The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is also a vivd exploration or being in-between a lot of parts of life; the novella After Hours I didn't care much for, but there's a character who could be asleep, awake, or comatose, which really drives the plot, such as it is.
posted by psoas at 5:42 AM on June 16, 2014

A great deal of Samuel R. Delany's work touches on liminality, especially in regards to marginalized sexual and gender identities.

I'd point you toward Aye and Gomorroah to start out with.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:16 AM on June 16, 2014

Russell Edson's poignant prose poem The reason why the closet man is never sad deals with liminality.
posted by winna at 7:31 AM on June 16, 2014

I first heard of the concept of liminality in the introductory essay to this book, Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920. The pictures show newly arrived immigrants, many of them in very fine traditional clothing from their old countries. According to the essay, it was not unknown for people to wear their traditional costumes for the journey across and the arrival in the USA, even having garments specially made, and then abandon it all at Ellis Island once they had got there. I find this such a striking, resonant and implausible image that it's stuck with me for years.

While I was looking up that book, I ran across this one, which you might also like: Passport Photos by Amitava Kumar.
posted by daisyk at 8:48 AM on June 16, 2014

The City and the City, by China Mieville explores this idea in beautiful depth in a novel only he could have written.
posted by janey47 at 9:37 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thinking about your link brought made me think of Jean Genet, the Thief's Journal especially in living a life outside the law and conventional morality.
posted by Middlemarch at 9:41 AM on June 16, 2014

I just played Merritt Kopas's Lim, a "game about the violent experience of inhabiting a liminal social space." Kopas writes that the game is inspired by her experiences as a queer trans woman, the "personal experience of moving through the world as a person whose body and presentation fail to conform to standard social categories of female/male."
posted by spaet at 12:14 PM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm pretty sure I wrote an essay on this topic in university. Definitely Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard (also see Liminal Visions of Nicole Brossard for theory). It's super not-fun to read, so I can only recommend it if this is for academia.

More in the vein of immigration/ancestry/identity see Running In the Family by Michael Ondaatje. The latter is one of my favorite books of all time.
posted by kitcat at 12:34 PM on June 16, 2014

I may be understanding liminality too broadly here, but a few things come to mind:

-It can be a bit of a crazy and wonderful bottomless pit, but you may want to look into 'pataphysics, which (in my view) deals with the spectra that can fall between binaries, and the idea of a perfect middle.

Another thing which could be interesting here is Rene Daumal's Mount Analog, a para-Surrealist work, which tells the story of a journey to an insurmountable mountain that connects heaven and earth (it connects heaven and earth precisely because it is insurmountable).

Finally, the Codex Seraphinianus is all about middle-states. It is recognizable as language, but unreadable. It details cultures that are familiar but inscrutable. It is not known whether it is translatable (though this may no longer be true), which traps its reader in a state where one can not write it off as a pure work of art and illustration, but also can not view it as a logical translation puzzle.
posted by taltalim at 2:20 PM on June 16, 2014

I think some pieces by video artist Bill Viola might be of interest to you.
posted by Fiorentina97 at 10:17 PM on June 17, 2014

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